Fiction

2015

‘The Insurrectionist and the Empress Who Reigns Over Time’ in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Yin Sanhi is the woman who foments and leads revolutions, knowing always that she’s one step from her fall – and Empress Narasorn proves her equal. Epic fantasy in 6,000 words.

‘The Petals Abide’ in Clarkesworld Magazine. Petals fall from Twoseret’s mouth, prophetic. They predict her life, death, loss. But they may prove fallible after all when an assassin is sent to her as a gift. 6,200 words.

‘And the Burned Moths Remain’ on Tor.com. Long ago Jingfei sold the world of her birth, Tiansong, to the Hegemony. Kept as a political prisoner, she bides her eternal sentence in the company of her countless bodies. An envoy arrives with an offer: a bargain to undo history and redeem Jingfei’s name. 6,100 words.

2014

Scale-Bright, a novella from Immersion Press. Shortlisted for the British SF Association Award.

‘Chrysalises’ in Dangerous Games, edited by Jonathan Oliver (Solaris Books).

‘The Governess and We’ in Steampunk World, edited by Sarah Hans (Alliteration Ink).

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Recent short fiction reads: Das, Miller

I look out over the sea-wall to the grey expanse of the Gangetic Delta. It’s cloudy but bright, dispersed sunlight soaking the clotted clouds and making me squint. The sea-walls weren’t there when I was last in Kolkata. The tide has risen since.

“Do you want to?” I ask Teresa. Her bump pushes against the bright red kameez she’s wearing. It’s not too obvious yet. She looks at the capsule in her hand. It’s transparent, like an oversized pill the size of a phone. I suppress the memory of small bodies looking alien in their stillness, as if Akir’s light had marked them as its own species. The capsule is surprisingly heavy. It holds the remains of our baby, who was born on Akir’s World. We brought the ashes of our children with us, so they didn’t have to be sown in the quartz-dusted soils of their homeworld.

‘A Moon for the Unborn’ by Indrapamit Das (Strange Horizons, 2014) starts with the image of unborn children walking in a single file on an alien world – an image that haunts the protagonist and his wife even after they have returned to Earth. It explores loss, the difficulties in keeping your relationship alive in the face of alien nightmares. It’s also remarkable in that the Kolkata it portrays is depicted as normal, treated as perfectly everyday, showing once again the immense gulf between the insider and outsider view (and affirming that the outsider view is, at best, unnecessary and at worst harmful). This Kolkata is effortlessly real, effortlessly alive, populated by people rather than colonialist caricatures. This is lived culture rather than costume.

The protagonist Vir is a trans man, a facet that does play a part in how he navigates the world, but it’s not played up as exclusively a mark of trauma or otherness. There’s nothing of oppression porn in this story; instead it’s about coming to terms, about nuanced humanity, about being able to continue in the face of trauma. Interestingly I’d say this hovers beautifully between magic realism and hard SF, which is a fantastic – and unique – interstice to inhabit. It’s a subtle, understated piece. I adore it and very much look forward to Indrapamit’s novel The Devourers being released in ebook (I’ve also heard good things about it from trusted sources).

‘When Your Child Strays From God’ by Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld, 2015) is a story that requires some background knowledge to contextualize. The basics: parts of the United States of America (also called the USA or simply the States) practice Christianity in a specific way, invoking hellfire, brimstone, and damnation on anyone not strictly conforming to a narrow code of conduct – such as going to church (a house of worship typically marked by crosses – the vertically asymmetrical one, not the one that looks like an X – and benches called pews, not to be confused with pew-pew), being homosexual, and I’m not sure what else; perhaps wearing makeup and using skincare, seeing that the narrator and her community appear to have atrocious skin.

Joking aside, this story uses the conceit of a psychedelic drug to introduce a fundamentalist pastor’s wife to the concept of empathy and understanding her son deeper than the surface of propriety and parental nostalgia. It’s told through absurdist hallucination and I appreciate that despite the setup this doesn’t turn out to be a Coming Out or Queer Trauma story. It’s a perfectly charming, breezy story and I enjoy the narrator’s interiority making her more than a soccer mom stereotype. The gossipy tone fits just right, as do amusing, witty passages like:

I climbed the steps slowly, aware of the sin I was about to commit. I paused at the door to his room.

Let me tell you something about the bedrooms of teenage boys. They are sovereign nations, islands of liberty hedged in on all sides by brutal tyranny. To cross the threshold uninvited is an act of war. To intrude and search is a crime meriting full-scale thermonuclear response: neutron-bomb silence, mutually-assured temper tantrums.

So I did not enter Timmy’s room lightly, and panic seized me in the instant that I did. Fear stopped me in my tracks, threatened to turn me around. The smell of stale laundry made my head swim—the bodily odors that meant my little boy had become a man. I summoned him up as the smiling little boy he had been before puberty caused him to declare independence, defy us as righteously and violently as America spurned its colonial overlords.

(Soccer mom is used in the story, another Americanism I didn’t get but which has been explained to me by Australian, Canadian, and Dutch friends; for which many thanks! Soccer is itself also an Americanism, quaintly to refer to what the rest of us call simply ‘football.’ I’m not sure what a pastor is, but no matter.)

FOR EXPOSURE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A SMALL PRESS PUBLISHER, Jason Sizemore

Before I go any further, let me give writers these words of advice: never, ever respond to a rejection. You’re not going to change anybody’s mind. Move on and try again with a different story.

Also before I go any further, let me give editors these words of advice: never, ever respond to a rejection response. The writer at the other end of the letter is likely in an emotional and irrational state. Move on, you have hundreds of stories waiting for you in the slush pile.

Jason Sizemore’s For Exposure isn’t quite like anything else I’ve read – for that matter I don’t think there are too many titles out there chronicling the life and times of running a small press (writers’ memoirs are plenty; editors’ and publishers’ less so).

It’s a very personal, and very honest, book. It gets into the numbers, the practicalities: being cheated out of money by distributors, That Guy who won’t stop pitching the editor terrible novels at cons, the ups and downs of running a business specializing in some of the most unpredictable markets on earth. It also reminds us that publishing is – though certainly a business – also a thing most people do as a labor of love (paid, of course, but it’s mostly about love of reading and love of the imagination rather than the Capitalistic Dream).

It is also, of course, absolutely entertaining.

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Toward a narrative without queer tragedy

‘The Insurrectionist and the Empress Who Reigns Over Time’ is up on Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

They captured the insurrectionist Yin Sanhi during the Feast of Twelve Luminous Cranes. They found her in Onsakit the Red Capital, which she had helped conquer, where an army led by mathematicians and blade-artists had disemboweled a dynasty five centuries old. It was a baking day, the sun in apex; royal bodies cast to the sand were quick to cook.

This is exactly what it says on the tin, and a proof – if you needed any, which you wouldn’t if you’ve read BCS before – that you can have epic fantasy within 6,000 words (that’s 20-24 pages in paperback). I also wrote it as part of a conversation against toxic queer ‘tragedy porn’. I compiled a growing list of recommendations of books where queer characters are central but the Queer Trauma is not.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating that nothing bad should happen to queer – or specifically lesbian – characters ever. (In fact, if you click through to the story you’d find that… well.) But I am tired of stories where queer people suffer specifically due to their orientation: living in a fascistically homophobic society say, or having the only love of their queer lives die on them, or similar. You know the type. There’s even a trope name for it, ‘Bury your gays’ I believe. You know it when you see it. It’s not just that a queer character suffers or dies; it’s that their suffering or tragedy is linked inextricably to their sexuality – a lesbian queen forced to have sex with a man (i.e. rape), say. This suffering is fetishized, allegedly to show that homophobia is bad but done at the expense of queer comfort. It’s often created or written by someone who is not queer and who doesn’t actually understand queer trauma.

Trust me when I say that queer people, by and large, know that Homophobia is Bad. I’m not sure, then, what purpose the ‘tragedy porn’ is meant to serve, who it’s supposed to be for. Which gaze it caters to. ‘Poverty porn’ isn’t exactly for the poverty-stricken, is it?

(Not to mention that trans people and black people are perfectly capable of telling their own stories and raising their voices. They don’t need me, or you.)

I’m not elected spokesperson for all lesbians, certainly, but on a personal level I confess I don’t like it when people like me are reduced to this single attribute: suffering. It’s dehumanizing, and I often read books that contain lesbians waiting for the moment: where they’d be traumatized because of their sexuality, where they lose the love of their lives (and when a lesbian loses her lover or her wife, it’s extra traumatic), where they’re reduced to the Queer Trauma and nothing else.

Life imitates art. When all you see in media is people like you suffering, and suffering and suffering, exactly for their mark of marginalization, you feel miserable. You can’t envision a future for yourself that doesn’t resemble all the narratives you have seen. It limits your thinking. It chips away at your mind and fractures your imagination.

To judge by twitter chatter for the last few days, I think it’s safe to say that I’m not the only one to feel this way; that I’m not the only one who wants more narrative models of queer joy, whether as couples or alone, whether mundane or epic. We need a narrative model that says it’s possible for us to be happy and alive, that it’s possible for us to find fulfillment. That we are not this one thing, the Queer Trauma, the Suffering from Homophobia Which is Bad. That we are, in short, human and fully so.

And this model, of treating us as fully human, should be the norm rather than the exception.

Budget makeup overview: Sleek, Maybelline, Revlon, Kanebo KATE, Majolica, Catrice

I’ve been meaning to do a sort of all-around brand overviews of some budget brands. I thought of including Korean and Taiwanese ones as well, but those are sort of their own thing (and while many of them are available in Mannings or the like – as in drugstores – their prices are closer to mid-range) with their own focus: more skincare than makeup. Plus I figured the brands I’m including here are probably more accessible to most people I know online than, say, Missha or Dr. Wu. :)

Sleek

I like Sleek a lot – their eyeshadow palettes, for this price range, are hard to beat and the shadows don’t have that talc smell some cheap eyeshadows do. I’ve found MAC (hi, Heroine) and NARS shadows that perform worse than Sleek. I haven’t tried most of their face or lip products. Their liners are, IMO, of higher quality than NYX.

Stand-outs: i-Divine palettes (especially Vintage Romance, Sunset, and Celestial), Face Form, Blush by 3, Eau La La Liners.

Avoid: Their matte palettes (Matte Brights, Matte Darks), as their matte shades are almost inevitably chalky and powdery, and need a white or skin-colored base to perform decently.

Maybelline

I haven’t tried much from Maybelline and have found their lipsticks too scented for me (and to taste oddly – I prefer my lipsticks to be tasteless and odorless, with few exceptions). I haven’t tried their face products at all and see no reason to when there are much, much superior brands of comparable prices. In fact, I find Maybelline overpriced for what they are – Sleek produces better products at lower prices, as do many other regional brands.

Stand-outs: Color Tattoos are perfectly solid cream eyeshadows and a fine alternative to the MAC Paint Pots if you’re into that kind of thing. Some of their Color Show liners are okay, but nothing special.

Avoid: Specific shades of the Color Tattoo, namely Painted Purple (awful, low-pigment, patchy). Their powder eyeshadows. All their powder eyeshadows are invariably terrible. Their blushes generally come across as mediocre.

 

L’Oreal

Same deal with Maybelline: overpriced for what it is (with price tags inching waaay close to mid-range brands), so-so quality, limited color choices. I don’t know, get Clio instead.

Stand-outs: Nothing.

Avoid: Their eyeshadow palettes. That stuff is breathtakingly bad – powdery, dry, no pigmentation. I understand their Infallible line is better, but that stuff isn’t available in SE Asia. Their liquid lipsticks (‘Colour Riche Extraordinaire Lip Color’) are way too strongly fragranced in a chemical-cheap-perfume way.

Revlon

This is going to sound boring now, but see above. Like L’Oreal and Maybelline, Revlon is another drugstore brand that doesn’t do anything exciting or exceptional, but is priced waaay too high for what it is. Mediocre face products, appalling eyeshadow, nothing to see here, move along.

Stand-outs: Lip products. Revlon lip products stand out among western drugstore brands in that they are odorless and tasteless, by and large, and they offer a fair range of different formula. There’s the basic Super Lustrous lipsticks with matte, satin, and shimmer finishes. There’s the Colorburst Balms that come in matte and ‘lacquer’ finishes. There’s the Lip Butters, which are tinted lip balms. You aren’t going to find fun, exciting colors like blue or green here, but as far as everyday colors go, you’ll probably find something to like in shade or finish.

Avoid: I’m not a fan of the Moisture Balm Stains because… well, we fall down the trap of chemical taste and smell again. Avoid the Just Bitten Lip Balms and go for the Colorburst Balms instead. As I said, appalling eyeshadow: the Shadowlinks sound nice in theory but the quality’s terrible.

Kanebo KATE

I really dig KATE. They do great face products (think waaay cheaper alternative to Laura Mercier), offer lots of lip product choices with really solid quality.

Stand-outs: Liquid Rouge V (despite the name, it’s a gloss rather than a liquid lipstick; I flat-out prefer it over Bobbi Brown’s gloss formula), Rouge HG (solid lipstick in the tube, pigmented and hydrating), Super Sharp Liner (think cheaper alternative to Stila’s Stay All Day liquid liner), Face Powder (loose finishing powder), High Grade Cover Powder (pressed finishing powder).

Avoid: Their eyeshadows tend to be heavier on shimmer/glitter than pigment, but if you want sheer washes of color – as with most Japanese brands – this is more than serviceable. My Color Pencil N is dry, tugs, and isn’t really worth it.

Majorca Majolica

This is one of Shiseido’s brands, and the price ranges are definitely inching toward ‘mid-range’ more than budget/drugstore. They put a decent amount of thought into their collections and limited editions, their packaging’s cute if you’re into Etude House, and they offer some colors that are fairly unusual and unique  at this price range – I’d argue Majolica actually gives you a more decent range of shades than Shiseido itself, and a lot of the colors offered by Majolica remind me of Shu Uemura (much more expensive). I prefer it way, way over most mid-range Japanese cosmetic brands. Their eyeshadows are pretty decent as well, giving you more interesting choices than just ‘neutral, more neutral, here’s more neutral'; they don’t offer as broad a range as Sleek – and Majolica’s more expensive – but most Japanese brands don’t offer a lot of colors. Great alternative to Shu Uemura.

Stand-outs: Perfect Automatic Liners (especially in RD303 and VI303, respectively a pearly red and a pearly lavender – striking and pretty as heck), Cream de Cheek Liquid Blush.

Avoid: I’m not a fan of their lip glosses (I hate tube glosses), but that’s about it.

Catrice

Meh. Just… meh. There’s nothing distinctive about Catrice. I like that the packaging – hard clear plastic – makes its products look more ‘expensive’ than it actually is, but their brushes are terrible (get Real Techniques or Zoeva instead), their eyeshadows are hit-or-miss. There’s a decent shade selection all around, but for the price range Sleek is just better. Catrice’s glitter and metallic shadows have ridiculously chunky glitter in. Most of their products aren’t bad, but they just aren’t great either. Just mediocre. I haven’t tried their face products, again mostly because there’s just no compelling reason to do so (KATE is better, etc).

Stand-outs: Nothing.

Avoid: Their lipsticks. They smell terrible, the shinier formulae have no lasting power, and there’s no unique shades in particular. Their Kohl Kajals are dry, tug, and don’t really blend out.

Recent short fiction reads

‘The Deepest Rift’ by Ruthanna Emrys (Tor.com). This is a very particular kind of story, I think – it’s quiet (despite the trope of first contact being usually treated as higher-stake), personal, driven by relationship and scientific curiosity. In those areas it excels and the way the story implies at hierarchy and cultural hegemony is something I appreciate, but by and large while I read to the finish and found it quite enjoyable, what didn’t work for me was the relationship between the protagonist and their lovers. Again, it’s gracefully understated:

warm hands brush shoulders on the way to the kitchenette; familiar body language tickles my peripheral vision. We speak rarely. Still, it matters that we are in the same room, on the same world.

But for me I can’t get invested in their need to stay together. At about 7,800 words, it’s not very short (though it did feel much shorter than it is – it’s a pretty smooth read), but I don’t think there’s enough room to establish the protagonist’s partners as distinct individuals. That relationship being so central to the story, the result is a whole that’s missing the middle.

‘Tin Cans’ by Ekaterina Sedia (Weird Fiction Review).

You know that you’re old when your children are old, when they have heart trouble and sciatica, when their hearing is going too so that both of you yell into the shell of the phone receiver. But most often, he doesn’t call — and I do not blame him, I wouldn’t call me either. He hadn’t forgiven and he never fully will, except maybe on his deathbed — and it saddens me to think that he might be arriving there before me, like it saddens me that my grandchildren cannot read Cyrillic.

This is a reprint. I first encountered it in Ekaterina’s collection Moscow But Dreaming (reviewed on Tor.com here), which is absolutely worth reading. It’s a dark magic realism story that, unlike most contemporary SFF, is not infused with inescapable Americana, geek pop culture references, and all the other markers that too often blight that particular sub-genre. This one is infused with real history, real darkness, and haunting imagery: honed like a knife, sharp in its effectiveness. It makes me sad that Ekaterina doesn’t write in genre anymore, because no other writer creates the same kind of short fiction she does.

‘Android Whores Can’t Cry’ by Natalia Theodoridou (Clarkesworld).

Some notes on the translation of Massacre Market

There is some uncertainty about the translation from the local language of what I have called “Massacre Market.” Other possible translations include “Atrocity Place,” “Massacre Fair,” or, and that was the most confusing aspect of this, “Pearl Fountain,” because even though each of the two words means something different, together they create a new compound which, as Dick and Brigitte explained to me, could rather clumsily be interpreted as “a fountain whence pearls flow,” “the breeding ground of oysters,” or even “the plane of sublime imperfections.”

This is an intricate, interstitial story that wouldn’t have looked out of place at Interfictions. It covers memory, identity, uncertainties, haunting imagery – so naturally, I’m all over it. It does rely on contemporary depiction of gendered violence, but then this seems a relatively near-future piece so that’s not out of place at all.

Kanebo ALLIE EX UV Protector Gel (Mineral Moist) N SPF 50/PA++++

The next step in my quest to get everyone I know to start using Asian sunscreens instead of western ones! Meet the Kanebo ALLIE… oh forget it, meet the Kanebo ALLIE UV Protector Gel (Mineral Moist) 50 SPF. Fine, that’s not much better. Most Asian sunscreens have the most amazingly long names, but hey, they’re also reasonably priced and high-quality so bear with it.

Here’s the CosDNA ingredient list (and ‘safety ratings’). The ingredients most relevant to a sunscreen (pasted from a Skin and Tonics review, which is more in-depth than mine) are these: Zinc Oxide 9.2%, Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate 7.5%, Diethylamino Hydroxybenzoyl Hexyl Benzoate 2.5%, Octocrylene 0.2%. The presence of Zinc Oxide means this is a physical sunscreen, which doesn’t break down throughout the day – meaning you can, in theory, apply this just the once instead of every 2-3 hours. The rest are chemical sunscreen ingredients.

There’s a decent amount of silicones in there, and the texture is more watery than most sunscreens I’ve used. It’s got considerable slip and smells strongly of alcohol (so if you’re allergic to either ‘cones or alcohol, keep that in mind!). I find it lightly moisturizing, but my skin doesn’t react at all to alcohol and I do use other skincare products prior to putting on the sunscreen; I wouldn’t trust a product that’s primarily a sunscreen to do enough moisturizing to keep my face comfortable and I suggest you don’t either. Nothing against combining both moisturizer and sunscreen in one product, but if your skin is dry it’s not going to cut it most of the time.

Finish-wise, this leaves my face fairly shiny – not greasy shiny, but shiny nonetheless. Not an issue for me; applying powder or semi-matte foundation deals with that. There’s no gray cast that I can notice and, unlike Skin and Tonics, I don’t find this affects the texture, feel or lasting power of any makeup applied on top of the sunscreen (but, again, your mileage will definitely vary there).

A cool, but unexpected, side-effect is that this proves surprisingly good at controlling sebum: by late afternoon, my face hasn’t gotten shiny and oily at all – and it stays that way throughout the rest of the day, no blotting sheet or blotting powder required. Undocumented feature, and very appreciated for me. Having said all that I do vastly prefer sunscreen that dries to a matte finish, but there we are. I experienced no irritation or breakouts.

Pros

  • Easily available. At least, wherever you can get Kanebo, you can probably get this.
  • Physical sunscreen. Meaning you don’t need to reapply every 2-3 hours, in theory.
  • High SPF and PA++++.
  • Wears well under makeup.

Cons

  • It’s slightly pricier than The Face Shop’s sunscreen, by the ML, but not by much.
  • High alcohol content, if your skin is sensitive to it.
  • Some have reported gray/white cast.

Recent short fiction reads

Li Jing is unique. Even from infancy, it was clear her skin would never be mantled with marble, and that her eyes would never be replaced by glass, her bones wood. At fifteen, no signage inked itself on her flesh, as it did others’, no portent of architectural occupation.

It complicated her relationships, of course. By the time Li Jing was wise enough to court partnership, city-sickness had become pandemic, so widespread that humanity was forced to leaven it into normalcy. One by one, proponents mushroomed from the carcass of fear, oozing grand ideas: why was this disease so terrible? Did it not provide a concrete immortality?

Consequently, few became willing to stomach a lover whose lifespan could be measured in decades. Death was never easy, but it was infinitely harder when you knew you would never walk the halls of your beloved, would never laze on their moon-drenched balconies.

‘In the Rustle of Pages’ by Cassandra Khaw (Shimmer, 2015). Mortality, old age, and architecture as transformative contamination. Also family and generational difficulties. This one’s great.

Jake acquired his target as soon as he stepped into the cafeteria. For the good of the war, he had passed without a trace through forests and mountains to reconnoiter and assassinate. For the good of the subsequent peace, Jake now needed to have lunch with a random stranger and emulate a human being.

The target sat by himself at a table in the corner, staring at his tablet. His lunch sat untouched, his chopsticks clearly unused. Slices of poached chicken breast lay on a bed of brown rice next to a pile of kimchi. The soy sauce and star anise of the poaching liquid and the spicy salty tang of the kimchi no one else seemed to notice hit Jake from across the room. Far more interesting than four slices of cheese pizza. Grease pooled in tiny orange circles on Jake’s slices and soaked through the paper plate onto his hands.

‘勢孤取和’ by John Chu (Lightspeed, 2015). Neat military SF that reminds me a bit of All You Need is Kill, with cool ideas.

The station’s darkness is always warm, always faintly redolent with rubber, charcoal, ammonia. The air is clean, antiseptic despite the rust that streaks the station’s innermost walls, and tonight carries the sound—the voice that is not a voice. It reminds me of whale song, a distant rumble moving through the station as though the station were water; but the station is not water, nor is it submerged beneath any ocean. I unstrap myself from the sleep pocket and float to the nook’s window.

Jupiter, swollen. So orange against the black of space, so large as to almost occupy the entire window. Space is only a slim crescent along the planet’s brightening rim. I have worked on Galileo Station harvesting helium for twelve years, and the view never grows old; Jupiter never grows old with its ceaseless storms, new designs constantly wrought within its cloud layers. The red spot spun itself out in our sixth year, the storm succumbing to another that is the colors of Earth’s seas: teal and turquoise, indigo and lapis. Sometimes, when the sunlight angles across, the storm shines like a great opal, cracked with orange lightning.

‘Somewhere I Have Never Traveled (Third Sound Remix)’ by E. Catherine Tobler (Clarkesworld, 2015). Atmospheric, foreboding, hard(ish) SF that makes me think of Lem’s Solaris.